Logo Judge Jamey's Court of Game Design

Case One: The Basketball Phenomenon

As the game industry grows, more and more designers are voicing their opinions about what ingredients make for a compelling/delicious game. The Miyamotos, Spectors, and Wrights of the world seem to provide an endless pool of insight from which budding designers can quench themselves-figuratively speaking, of course. But any body of water can become stagnant if it remains idle for too long, and the "pool" of design theory has been sitting relatively still without many waves (metaphorical waves, mind you) coming by to shake things up. Well sit back, fellow designers, because this article marks the arrival of high tide!

In this series, I intend to examine the most overlooked facets of game design and focus on cleaning out stale design like a pool man cleans dead bugs out of a pool. I may additionally add chlorine to the pool to prevent that yucky green stuff, but if your eyes start to burn let me know and I will use less chlorine next time. With that said, allow me to present my very first overlooked design principle, which is:

Star ODP #1: Any game with a basketball in it is automatically good.

Before we get into the logistics behind this principle, a few caveats:

I know what you're thinking: "Are you kidding? I mean, it makes perfect sense, but how come no other game designers have thought to examine the (seemingly obvious) relationship between basketballs and player enjoyment?" Believe me, friends, this same question has kept me pondering for many a sleepless night. Perhaps the big-name designers are so focused on the larger picture that such simple details as "basketballs are fun" tend to go unnoticed. I can only hope that this article will help to alleviate this glaring oversight and restore basketballs to their rightful place as a fundamental facet of good game design.

Now, even the most solid theory will undoubtedly have some skeptics who lack the vision required to recognize brilliance when it shines right in their scowling, hollow faces. These people are always yammering about things like "evidence" and "credibility." So, to appease this crowd, I compiled the following data which I trust will allay all doubts as to the truth and beauty of the b-ball principle:

Game # of B-balls Goodness
Tetris Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball
Super Mario Sunshine Full Basketball Half Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball Full Basketball Half Basketball Empty Basketball Empty Basketball
Animal Crossing Full Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Empty Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Empty Basketball
Deus Ex Full Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Half Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Full Basketball Half Basketball
Fig 1.1

This table illustrates a few additional key points, particularly the direct relationship between goodness and basketballs. If x is said to represent the number of basketballs in a given game and y represents goodness, we can restate this relationship as x = y. Now, without delving too deeply into the mathematics, it becomes clear that as the quantity of basketballs in a given game increases, the goodness will also increase at an equal rate. This is known as the entertainment equation, also commonly referred to as the "fun quotient" or "fun factor." For those struggling to understand this equation, think of multiball in pinball: as the number of pinballs increases, the game becomes more exciting. This is similar to the b-ball effect in games.


Tetris is a perfect example. Many have hailed this game as a "classic," while at the same time completely ignoring the fact that there are no basketballs to be found in the entire game! I'm sorry, I really don't see what's so fun about moving a bunch of stupid blocks around. I mean, talk about ho-hum! And excuse me, but where were the basketballs? As you can see, the goodness rating of this game is almost nonexistent, another fact routinely ignored by Tetris advocates.

Worst game ever? Quite possibly!

Super Mario Sunshine

While this game technically has no basketballs, it does have durians, a type of round fruit known to exhibit basketball-like behavior. This leads to another important facet of the basketball principle: if it acts like a basketball, it probably is a basketball. Games aren't an exact science, so you'll just have to use your intuition on this one. When in doubt, favor the inclusion of actual basketballs over other, basketball-like, objects. Super Mario Sunshine was widely considered a letdown by game critics, and the lack of real basketballs was perhaps the prime source of disappointment.

Animal Crossing

Many know Animal Crossing as the breakthrough hit that put a struggling company called Nintendo on the map. Those who played the game were delighted by its charming characters, laid-back atmosphere, and inclusion of basketballs. Anyone who found themselves repeatedly kicking the basketballs that appeared sporadically can attest to the addictive, almost hypnotic power of these orange globes of glory. The only problem is that you can kick the basketball into the river, which my friend did accidentally while visiting my town! There's nothing more anguish-inducing than watching a basketball you've grown attached to being swept away like Baby Moses riding the tides of fate...

Whoa. Didn't mean to get all Biblical on you there.

Taz Nook
Tom Nook from Animal Crossing shows off his b-ball "skillz"

This brings up another important note: it's essential for players to identify with the characters in your game. Studies have shown that the more abstract a character is, the wider the range of people who will identify with that character - and since nothing is more abstract than a simple sphere, basketballs have a much higher rate of emotional appeal than people (or even cute animals). This concept is illustrated by Figure 1.2, the "resonance pyramid":

Fig 1.2 - The Resonance Pyramid

Nintendo clearly recognizes the importance of compelling characters; the company has built a legacy on strong character franchises, from Mario to Zelda to Pokémon. With Animal Crossing's basketballs set to join that proud pantheon, it seems the Big N has another new star on its hands!

Deus Ex

Finally, there's Deus Ex. What can I say about this modern classic that hasn't been said already? The game has it all - global conspiracies, non-linear gameplay, and did I mention basketballs aplenty? That's right, kiddos: Deus Ex has the orange rock in abundance! Budding game designers, take note. This game can be picked up for a pittance, and remains the most effective example of the b-ball principle yet seen in a commercial game.

Denton moves up the court... he shoots... he scores!

We've covered a lot of ground in this article. To recap: basketballs are fun, and the more basketballs a game has, the better. Keep in mind, however, that this does not apply to basketball games. You may ask, "But what if I'm working on a basketball game?" Well, that's a tricky one. I would say maybe try putting in an elderly British man, possibly wearing a tuxedo and/or monocle. That oughta do it. Also, bear in mind that the insertion of basketballs into non-video games is untested and probably hazardous. For you video game designers, on the other hand, there is really no acceptable excuse not to include at least 5-10 basketballs in your game. Obviously, this is just a rough estimate, and will most likely increase as technology improves and new game systems are released. More processing power means more basketballs - and as an added bonus, great strides are being made every day in the field of basketball physics. So what are you waiting for, designers? Have a ball!